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August 22, 2004

Musings on the Campaign for the Presidency « Politics As Usual »

I'm really not sure Karl Rove is earning his paycheck. Then again, I'm just about absolutely certain John Kerry's campaign manager isn't. You can at least make the argument that Karl Rove is waiting until after the Olympics are over and everyone can truly focus on the campaign before he gets things in gear. But Kerry's campaign took the wrong tack from the beginning, and the Democrat Party went right along with it. It will be their undoing.

Here's why I think that way:

President Bush is the incumbent. As such, his past shouldn't really make much difference. The only possible argument he can really make for his re-election is simply the job he did over the past four years. The flip side of that, however, is that the only valid argument for his defeat is the exact same thing: the last four years.

That's hardly earth-shattering. Many people more experienced and wiser than me have said that elections are pretty much nothing more than referendums on the incumbent's administration.

But if that is true (and I think it is), why did the Democrats worry about having a candidate with war experience? Why did they make the AWOL charge the main attack for more than a month? Has the Democrat Party truly lost every bit of its political sense?

Because by any rational measure, Kerry was toast before he even ran.

The Office of the President is the head of the Executive Branch. As such, you need to convince people that you are the best executive for the job. There are exactly two ways to do this:

1) Provide an excellent example of your executive leadership ability.
2) Be charismatic enough to overcome a weak executive resume.

Every single President over the last 40 years was either a state governer or a Vice President, right? Take that back to Herbert Hoover, and the only exceptions were John F. Kennedy (won on charisma) and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who held the highest military positions (clearly executive excellence).

What on earth convinced the Democrats that they could blaze trails with someone as obviously non-charismatic as John F. Kerry?

Aside from all that, however, John Kerry needed to show the United States public that he has the executive skills to guide the nation more ably than George Bush through any difficulty the nation might encounter. He needed to demonstrate, with examples from his past or clear and specific plans for the future, exactly why he would make a better President, executive, leader, and Commander-In-Chief than PResident Bush has. They dropped the ball when they tried to make a four-month stint as commander of a Swift Boat be the main testimony to his leadership and executive skills. They made further mistakes when they merely criticized how President Bush has handled things and gave vague mumblings of, "I would do better."

No. Not good enough. Since the choice is between someone who has years of executive experience and someone who has little to none, John Kerry should be trying to demonstrate that he has the intelligence, flexibility, humor, aplomb, grace, decisiveness, courage, innovation, etc, to handle any situation. Not only better than Bush, but better than the voters themselves. Because few people really know what it is like to be President, to deal with the leaders of other nations who will do anything to undercut and backstab the United States if it will help their position in the slightest. John Kerry has not demonstrated he even understands that, much less can help the voters understand that.

That means he can't just choose examples of things that went badly (or even things that went fine that were perceived as going badly) over the last four years. He needs to demonstrate a very clear personality, a consistent approach if you will, to any problem that comes up. The best way would be to acknowledge that President Bush has done well, but that the moves were obvious enough that anyone could have done it. Then, point by point, he should have shown exactly how he could have convinced France to get on board despite their obvious commitment to oppose us. ...but the trick would be, to convince us both that it would work, and that he could have thought of it at the time. Running a campaign against a popular former state governer who ran a baseball team and kept things going after 9/11 and turned around a weak and shell-shocked economy in less than 2 years through sticking with his vision (tax cuts) of how to fix it even if it went against conventional wisdom (or what the news media believed/supported, at least)...well, that is nearly an impossible task. Once he won the nomination, Kerry should have built a staff of the most experienced economists and diplomats he could find, who would coach him on every minor mistake President Bush made so that he could offer suggestions off-hand with extreme comfort and naturalness. Like, "President Bush did a fair job assembling a broad coalition of nations for Iraq, but having most of the UN Security Council permanent members against it weakened his case. If he had contacted Chirac behind the scenes and threatened to expose their oil agreements with Saddam Hussein, threatened to deport every terrorist Muslim to Saudi Arabia, threatened to withdraw from the Shanghai Communique agreements and fully support Taiwan's independence unless China agreed and sent troops, and then used economic pressure on Germany, we could truly have made it a world-wide coalition. But I'll forgive him his inexperience, since he was only a baseball manager from Midland, Texas..." Now, the specifics could have been different, I don't know or care. The point is, with 4-5 expert advisors, they should have been able to use hindsight to come with a Me-Too-ism that would convince the average voter that it was the exact and perfect ploy to do better than Bush. He needed to "Monday-morning Quarterback" every major policy decision Bush made. He shouldn't tear down the "No Child Left Behind", but should be able to explain, simply and convincingly, how he wouldn't have had any difficulties funding it fully while still giving the tax cuts. He should denounce how the Democrats filibustered Judicial nominees and explained how simple and easy it is to lend a little political capital to dismantle such roadblocks within days.

John Kerry acts like his methods for dealing with past events should be if the problems of the future will be the same, and he doesn't want to risk Republicans stealing and adopting his brilliant plans. Well, someone who can win a Presidency has no such fear, because he understands that new and different problems pop up all the time, that his opponents lack the ability and intelligence to implement his plans because he is simply such darn good Presidential material. The way John Kerry handles it, he seems like he thinks that even though he has the right ideas, if he can't be the one to implement them, than the United States can go to Hell in a Handbasket for all he cares. He doesn't show confidence in his natural ability to lead.

It is easy to see that McCain was a better politician than Bush, and Bradley was a better politician than Gore. Howard Dean eliminated Edwards and Leiberman and Gephardt because he was the one with executive experience. He eliminated Clark because Clark really didn't convince anyone he had been a top-notch executive. When Dean imploded, I think the only person he really hadn't vanquished yet was the only person who really hadn't had a strong enough campaign to challenge him...and so being the only semi-viable candidate who hadn't already been rejected, Kerry was nominated by default.

It's sad, really. If Howard Dean hadn't gone crazy (or revealed his unbalanced nature, perhaps?), we could have had a true campaign between executives who both governed well, but with different assumptions and styles. It could have been a true contest.

The numbers make it seem like Kerry has a chance, but I am absolutely certain it will prove to be illusionary in the end. It will probably be bad enough that Democrats will be wondering what happened. The illusion is maintained because it is easy to say you will vote for someone because you don't really like someone else...but when you are actually pulling the lever, when it actually comes down to brass tacks, most people will choose the person with extensive executive experience and demonstrated executive competence over someone with none of either.

Right now, I think I could run Kerry's campaign better than his current manager. And I could be a more credible candidate than John Kerry.

Posted by Nathan at 10:08 PM | Comments (7)

Hmmm, after reading your analysis, I guess we should just crown Dubya President. :)

I agree with a lot of what you wrote. But if Kerry is so weak, why is he leading in so many state polls today?

I still say the election is Dub's to lose. And as of today, it is quite possible that he will. Note I say "possible" and not "probable".

Posted by: Frank Martin at August 23, 2004 05:47 AM

I know you were just jerking my chain...but I want to make it clear: while I think President Bush continues to be the best man for the job, I do not think Bush has earned the right to skip the elections or anything. I am mainly trying to say that Kerry's campaign is going about this the absolutely wrong way. He seems to be trying to just convince people to not vote for Bush rather than give them a really good reason to believe he can run the country more ably than Bush. He can't just say he will, he must demonstrate it, somehow.
And I think Kerry is leading in the polls because the media downplays his shortcomings, and Karl Rove hasn't really started the Bush campaign yet...and probably won't until during the debates. I don't mind you thinking it is possible W could lose: he certainly could. Lots can happen between now and November. But I think Kerry has nowhere to go but down...

Posted by: Nathan at August 23, 2004 06:26 AM

I'm not yanking your chain. I know you think W is the guy for the job and I know you aren't suggesting skipping elections or anything like that.

I'm pretty much agreeing with you! I don't believe someone can win just by running a negative campaign. Voters need a reason to vote for Kerry as much as a reason to not vote for Dubya.

I don't credit the media for Kerry's lead at this point. If the electorate is polarized at 45% for Kerry and 45% for Dub, well, there isn't much to fight over.

My guess is that it is difficult for either Kerry or Dub to drop much below that 45%. But it is the state-by-state voting that will determine who wins. If all Kerry's votes come from New York, California and Illinois, he can't win. If all Dub's votes come from Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama, he can't win either.

Either guy can win Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and a handful of other states and he only has to win - it doesn't matter if is .5% or 5% - he just has to win.

I will also suggest that negative campaigning does work. Dub will continue to hammer Kerry, but it will be tough to drive down that approximately 45%! Because that is pretty solid Kerry. Just like additional negative advertising may not drive down Dub's 45%. However, if it suppresses the vote - well that's a different story.

Posted by: Frank Martin at August 23, 2004 12:35 PM

Oh, the after reading your analysis, I guess we should just crown Dubya President. :) part seemed like a mild teasing; that's the only part I thought you were tugging on any binding devices.

Other than that, I find it interesting that you only refer to Bush as running a negative campaign. The main negative attacks against Kerry are all '527' group by the same token, Kerry-supporting '527' attack ads are more prevalent and have been running far longer, and yet Bush's numbers don't really go down. F9/11 gave Kerry more bounce than his own convention!
And I credit the mainstream news media for keeping Kerry's campaign afloat because they hammered Bush on the AWOL thing, the Stephanie Plame thing, the Yellowcake thing, the Richard Clarke thing, but have absolutely downplayed the vindicating evidence that might help Bush. Their coverage of the SBVFT was woefully absent; when Kerry finally responded so they could no longer ignore it, they covered it disproportionately from how they handled questions about Bush, and for the most part have spent all their effort attempting to undermine the SBVFT credibility rather than spending time verifying Kerry's now-questionable claims.
But not everyone sees it that way, I know. But I only have my eyes and my mind, so my perspective is pretty hard for me to ignore... [grin]

Posted by: Nathan at August 23, 2004 01:29 PM

Sorry if I seemed to be suggesting that Dub is running only a negative campaign, he isn't.

Also, I lump the 527s either with Dub or with Kerry - whatever fits. Same for the DNC and RNC. If you want to say the Move On ads are "Kerry's" then I have no real disagreement. Technically they aren't, just as the Swift Boat guys aren't Dub's, but in reality I say they are.

You may think Kerry is getting a free ride from the media and there are others that argue Dub is. Probably neither is, really. But it seems that way to any subjective party.

you wrote: yet Bush's numbers don't really go down. That is my point! The pro-Dub and pro-Kerry support (whatever it is) is so solid right now (for whatever reasons) their support levels don't change that much. They are fighting over about 10% of the voters! And I have no clue what motivates that 10%. Is it issues? I don't know...

Arguing about who gets better media coverage is just an exercise. The media coverage is what it is, you know? That's why you have to depend on paid media and massive GOTV efforts. I think that is where the election will be won or lost - whoever gets their voters to the polls. Dems need a nice, warm, sunny day. The GOP needs cold and rain.

Posted by: Frank Martin at August 23, 2004 02:54 PM

Yeah, I can go with all that. I don't agree with much of it, but I don't exactly dispute much of it, either. It's well within my margin of error of understanding, I'd say.

Posted by: Nathan at August 23, 2004 03:01 PM

I think what's going to decide this election is not going to be the swing voters, but the base -- as in, which side's base voters become demoralized by their candidate's lousy campaign and decide to start looking ahead to 2008 before 2004 has even run its course.

But that's what I've been thinking for months now.

Posted by: McGehee at August 24, 2004 06:11 AM
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